Hong Kong can be a venue for discussion of 'Tibet question'

Barry Sautman says misconceptions can be honestly addressed, so stalled talks may one day restart

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2013, 2:34am

Whether one can accept that the "Tibet question" is misconceived depends on whether one thinks the Chinese government may be right about the political status of Tibet. That means going beyond the common view found in the West and in Hong Kong that because the Chinese government is not a liberal democracy, it is necessarily wrong about everything.

There are many misconceptions. The main ones fostered by Beijing are, firstly, that Tibetan protests would not exist but for external intervention. But there are some 500 protests a day in China, mostly without external input. Secondly, Tibet's problems can be solved through development. But some developments cause more ethnic economic disparity. And thirdly, the Tibet question will go away once the Dalai Lama "goes away". The Tibet question will alter when the Dalai Lama no longer plays a political role; ethno-nationalist movements throughout the world are generally able to continue after their great leaders have passed away.

There are also misconceptions spread by the Tibet government-in-exile and the "Free Tibet" movement. First, they claim Tibet was independent from 1913 to 1951. In fact, no country in the world recognised Tibet's independence during that time.

A second misconception is that "Old Tibet" was a peaceful region and that Buddhism is the religion of peace. But there were many wars between Tibetan governments and their neighbours as well as internal wars. And Tibetan rebels and exiles also used arms against China during the 1960s and 1970s.

A third misconception is that the Dalai Lama is Buddhism's leader. In fact, the world has 490 million Buddhists; only 12 million are Tibetan Buddhists, and not all are of the Gelugpa sect led by the Dalai Lama.

A fourth misconception is that the Communist Party is trying to extirpate Buddhism in Tibet. Theravada Buddhism, the predominant form of Buddhism in the world, is promoted by the government in southwestern China.

A fifth misconception is that the Tibetan question is a human rights issue as a result of "cultural genocide". But cultural genocide has to be intentionally carried out and it is always tied to physical genocide, as in the Holocaust. Tibetan language, literature and art are thriving.

And, finally, the self-immolations that have been occurring in Tibetan areas since 2009 are proof that the human rights situation is worsening. But no one knows why most of the self-immolations have been carried out. It may well reflect some kind of political tactic tied to religious merit, a result of peer pressure, the self-marginalisation of monks.

All this has fuelled external support for Tibetan separatism, which makes Beijing more resistant to expanding self-autonomy in Tibet. It's not useful to see Tibet's autonomy as "genuine" as claimed by Beijing, or "fake", as Tibetan exiles might claim. Instead, autonomy is at a low level.

Beijing has never claimed it is at the same level as in Hong Kong. It never says there is "one country, two systems", or "Tibetan people ruling Tibet". Rather, Beijing sees autonomy in Tibet as serving a few basic purposes: preserving Tibetan culture and allowing some Tibetan officials to function within the political regime and to carry out preferential policies.

Beijing certainly regards Tibet as abnormally insecure. As a result, local decision-making remains highly constricted. In the main, Tibetans' level of rights is the same as for other Chinese, but the state infringes them more often.

The Dalai Lama has said that he seeks only "genuine autonomy", not independence. But Beijing continues to see him as a separatist because of the statements he and his representatives have made. The Dalai Lama has made little progress, mainly because he has been unwilling to fulfil the main preconditions for negotiations that Beijing has set out, namely that he states "Tibet is an inalienable part of China".

Thus, there has only been a series of "talks about talks". These are unlikely to resume soon because the Dalai Lama says he has no political role and Beijing does not recognise and will not talk to the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Yet elements of Hong Kong-style autonomy may be adaptable in Tibet. Beijing has said that minority autonomy should be gradually broadened to achieve "extensive autonomy". There are practical steps Chinese leaders can take, but autonomy cannot be broadened without the Dalai Lama (or any successor) publicly stating that Tibet is an inalienable part of China.

This may all sound discouraging to some. But Hong Kong is a unique part of China where the Tibet question can be discussed openly. And some informal contacts in Hong Kong may bring the two sides together and may lead to the eventual resumption of "talks about talks".

This is an edited version of a recent speech by Professor Barry Sautman of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology at a speaker luncheon organised by the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation